Education Viewpoint: There's more than one path to a good job

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In his review of the curriculum and testing, Sir Ron Dearing has all but abandoned the 1988 national curriculum for 14- to 16-year- olds. He has kept the sensible legal requirement that pupils should do science in addition to mathematics and English, and there are to be short courses in technology and modern languages. But almost everything else has gone.

In many schools, the time freed will be used to offer history, geography, three separate sciences, classics or home economics, but schools will also have the chance to develop applied or 'vocational' education.

Some authorities will seize this opportunity. Barking and Dagenham wants to introduce a range of vocational pathways from the age of 14. It has brought all its secondary schools and the further education college into a consortium, but so far has been held back by the straitjacket of the post-14 curriculum.

There are, however, others who will fear a rerun of the old 11-plus division into 'sheep and goats'. They believe that since vocational education is seen as second- best, many young people will be consigned to a second- class education and a second- class life. It is fairer, they say, to require everyone to do the same things during the years of compulsory schooling.

This is patently not so. Large numbers of 14- and 15- year-olds regularly absent themselves from school because, as research on truancy has shown, many of them cannot see any point in learning. There is also the paradox that countries such as Germany, where young people follow technical and vocational pathways, achieve for the ordinary child a much higher standard of general education than we do by concentrating on general education.

The explanation seems to be that good vocational education, which clearly relates to pupils' future lives, acts as an incentive to higher levels of achievement, even in academic subjects. Young people who cannot see the point of learning science or mathematics may be fired to do so if the subjects' relevance is made plain through practice in, for example, building or hairdressing. The motivation to work hard at difficult things is all the greater if entry to the preferred occupation depends on reaching an acceptable standard in specified subjects.

For Sir Ron's proposals for 14- to 16-year-olds to work we need good vocational education clearly related to future opportunities, and here there is much to be done.

The point of the current General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) being introduced after 16 in such fields as business, science and tourism is to provide good applied education. About 30 years ago, the philosopher Paul Hirst made a useful distinction between 'forms of knowledge', different ways of establishing truth about the world, and 'practical organisations of knowledge', the forms focused on particular classes of practical problems. In these terms, mathematics, science and history are 'forms of knowledge', and business studies and engineering are 'practical organisations'.

We have traditionally concentrated on forms of knowledge with only a few tentative forays into practical organisations, such as GCSEs in motor vehicle studies and A-levels in technology and business studies. The overwhelming emphasis on learning for its own sake has been detrimental to both young people and the economy.

Sir Ron's recommendations give us an opportunity to put in place the missing applied route. If we follow the logic of Hirst's distinction, the attempt to create a science GNVQ would seem misplaced, but business and technology could properly be seen to be the domain of GNVQs rather than GCSEs and GCEs. Developing the applied route would involve creating good vocational educational qualifications as practical organisations of knowledge and understanding. Learning would not just be related to the present but would also enable the student to cope with an unknown future.

Framed in this way, vocational education would not be second class. Nevertheless parity of esteem is a false objective. How much a qualification is valued will depend essentially on where it leads. If GCE A-levels via university lead to jobs that are generally regarded as better than those on offer to those holding GNVQ A-levels, then the former will inevitably have higher status.

But if GCE A-levels are clearly seen as the qualifications for those wanting to pursue the forms of knowledge and GNVQs for those wanting to study practical organisations, then both could lead to the top jobs.

People's aptitudes and interests vary widely. Some will always be more successful than others, but success need not be tied so firmly to academic study.

Tradition and snobbery must not be allowed to hamper the development of good applied education. We must not lose the opportunity that Sir Ron has offered.

The author is Professor of Education at Manchester University.